This month, I started teaching a new class: an ESL cooking class. It’s the first time I’ve ever taught a cooking class, and it’s been a lot of fun for both me and the students. In this post, I’ll share some information about the class and give a couple of ideas for easy recipes that you could make with your students. Even if you don’t have access to a kitchen, there are some very simple foods and drinks that students can make in the classroom.
Why cook in class?
My favorite thing about this class is that it gives us a clear sense of purpose. We have a meaningful purpose for using language in class: to learn how to make food. For many communicative, comprehension-based teachers, it’s sometimes a struggle to know what exactly to do in class. If we’re not focusing on explicit grammar instruction or vocabulary memorization, what exactly do we teach? But a cooking class—or any other class that focuses on a particular topic of interest to students—is an excellent way to engage students in meaningful communication.
Also, I think that a cooking class is helpful for a lot of adult ESL students, not just for the English they learn but because cooking is an important survival skill. Immigrants sometimes have very little knowledge about how to cook here in the U.S. Many of them cooked when they were in their native country, but it can be a struggle now since they might need to use cooking equipment that they’ve never used before, and they sometimes can’t find the same ingredients that were available to them at home. Some of the products they find at American grocery stores are a mystery to them.
Several years ago, I did one-on-one tutoring with a refugee student from Burma. I mostly tutored her in English, but I also taught her how to do a little cooking. I just showed her some very basic things, like how to make pasta. Later, she told me that those cooking lessons were the most valuable part of the tutoring for her because it helped her to finally figure out how she could make good food for her and her family.
And in the cooking class I’m teaching now, I’ve discovered that some of the things I think of as “basic” cooking knowledge are very new for some of my students. All the students in the class are from China, and although they are familiar with stovetop cooking, most of them have done very little baking. After we made chocolate chip cookies in class, one of my students told me that she was going to try making cookies at home, and she was excited to finally use her oven for the first time! Even though she’s been living in the U.S. in a home with an oven for several years, she had never used it before because she didn’t know how.
One difficulty in teaching cooking to language learners is that there are a lot of fairly technical, low-frequency words related to cooking—words like beat or simmer. And the names of some specific ingredients are pretty low-frequency. Students also often aren’t used to American units of measurement like cup, teaspoon, and tablespoon. But I started off the class with a few very simple recipes so that students could be gradually introduced to some of these cooking-specific terms. By starting with short, simple recipes, the students have not been too overwhelmed with new vocabulary.
The students in my cooking class have a pretty wide range of English proficiency, which I was initially worried about (especially since I don’t speak the students’ L1), but I’ve found that it’s not a big problem. Since we’re actually doing the cooking, I can easily model what the students need to do—either using real ingredients or just miming actions or showing videos or pictures. When cooking, it’s usually fairly easy to establish meaning without using the L1.
Simple Recipe Ideas
On the first two days of class, my students and I made some very simple food and drinks to start off our cooking adventures. On the first day, we made hot chocolate, and on the second day, we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We made both in our classroom.
To make the hot chocolate, I brought in an electric kettle, hot cocoa powder, and cups and spoons (one for each student). I started off the lesson by asking students if they had ever had hot chocolate before, if they liked it, and if they had ever made it before. I asked them a little bit about how they think you make hot chocolate. Then, I modeled for them how to make it while I explained what I was doing. I passed out the cups, spoons, and hot cocoa powder for them to make their own. They passed around the electric kettle to pour water in their own cups. (I had to re-fill the kettle once to have enough water for everyone.) Afterwards, I asked them, “How did we make the hot chocolate?” They told me the steps as I wrote it up on the board. This is basically a form of LEA (Language Experience Approach). The next day, I displayed the steps to them out of order, and they had to put them in the correct order.
I followed pretty much the same structure when making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I brought in bread, peanut butter, jelly, and plates and knives for each student. Again, I modeled how to make it, let the students make their own, and then elicited from them the steps to make it while I wrote it up on the board.
A colleague of mine had another good idea: making tacos with students. She didn’t have access to a kitchen, but she brought in the ingredients to go in the tacos (cooked ground beef, chopped tomatoes, lettuce, shredded cheese…yes, these were American-style tacos!) and set them out in serving bowls. After teaching the students about tacos and teaching the names of the ingredients, she let them scoop out their own ingredients and make their own tacos.
Obviously, these recipes—or any kind of cooking—is much easier in smaller classes. I probably wouldn’t attempt to do much actual cooking in large classes. But if you have a smaller class, I would recommend trying out some very simple recipes. It’s something fun and out-of-the-ordinary for students, and they can pick up some new language as it’s being used in a meaningful context. Plus, you all get to eat a delicious treat during class!
If your students are interested in learning about cooking but the idea of making a food or drink in class sounds too overwhelming, there are still some other options. First, there are a ton of recipe videos on YouTube that you can show in class. When I use cooking videos in class, I use them like a MovieTalk, pausing frequently to narrate what’s happening on the screen. Or you could just have students read recipes and talk about them together. If you search for “Visual Recipes” on Google or on Teachers Pay Teachers, you can find a lot of recipes with pictures for each step. You could also consider using TPR (Total Physical Response) to teach some cooking verbs: First, you could have students watch a recipe video while you talk about what’s happening. Then, you could read the directions of the recipe yourself like TPR commands, and the students respond by doing the actions of the recipe (e.g., stir, chop, spread).
Have you ever taught students about cooking? Share your own ideas in the comments!